The Risk of Reading This Blog

From a reader named William Haisley:

I’m a weekly columnist for the Daily Collegian, the Penn State newspaper, where I currently attend law school. Today my column about why I don’t vote — an idea I was exposed to and ran with after reading your “Why Vote” article — ran and I have been dealing with the fallout ever since. I think I’ve been insulted more often today than the rest of my 24 years combined.

In some sense, my column is just an amalgamation of your article and various Overcoming Bias articles — which, again, I was introduced to on your blog and can’t thank you enough for — I’ve read over the years, though I guess I could say that about my entire belief system at this point.

Anyways, you should have a warning label at the end of your articles that tells people the potential dangers of publicly stating some of your more controversial findings (though I really didn’t think this was that controversial, but I’ve been proven wrong). You really need the cultural tread to take people somewhere they didn’t know they were going.

Something like, “Warning: improper use of contents may cause hate mail.”

So what constitutes “improper” use?

Ahmed Waris al-Majid

Not giving the required background. If I go around telling stories from the Freakonomics books, people would give me the "Are you insane?" look and laugh me off. The presentation style matters, and that is out of either of your departments.
Rest easy.

Andreas Moser

My advice regarding hate mail: Publish it! It usually makes for great reading.

I once got a hate call after a blog I had written. The anonymous caller threatened me and asked me to leave his country: (which I did, sooner or later)


"Improper" use would be forgoing the reasons you proposed, and instead assuming that people only vote because they want to be seen. There's a big difference between "people want to feel like they are doing their civic duty, even if it has little effect" and "people want to be seen affiliating with a party." The latter is insulting for everyone that actually cares.

The article wasn't at all based on the economics: that the cost of voting outweighs the benefit, but rather on assuming that voters do it to be seen and that everyone voter shares exactly the same beliefs as the person voted for.


I am on the same page as this guy. We need to change the democratic process in the USA. The common citizens vote doesn't matter and the politicians do whatever the money tells them to.


They don't call it "The Dismal Science" for nuthin, ya know!


I am continually stunned that economists, of all people, can't understand the one-word reason why they should vote: correlation.

Imagine an island of 100 voters. 75 are economists who are thoughtful, respectful, and have jointly worked out a brilliant economic policy. 25 are ne'er-do-wells who do whatever the latest winner of their song-and-dance contest tell them to do.

Of course, the island is run by the song-and-dance folks, because these economists (a) have focused on the wrong aspect of vote and (b) applied over-simplistic math. In particular, they have failed to grasp that, while their marginal vote may not matter, the marginal effect with whom they correlate with _is_ determining.

Recall that near tautolgy that the vote the matters because it prevents disenfranchisement. When it come decide who gets their taxes raised or who gets drafted, a democratic government has strong incentives to put the heaviest burden on the group that votes the least.

So the proper question is not 'what is the marginal effect of my vote isolation', but 'what is the marginal effect on the group with whom I correlate.'

Now, this nested math is more complicated -- perhaps it's in your self-interest to be a free-rider within your own group, confident that even without your vote your group is strong to avoid being taxed or drafted or whatever. But notice how makes the "should I vote" question subtler and more interesting.

In November, an Auto-worker in the mid-west would be a fool NOT to vote, but the typical NPR listener in Alabama can probably rationally skip going to the polls.



As an NPR listener in Alabama, I certainly intend to vote in November. It won't make a difference in the Electoral College, of course, but it is important to remind the majority that the minority exists, and that we are a large minority at that. Put one hundred Alabamans in a room, and the sixty or so conservatives need to remember that forty of us are liberals, and can't be entirely ignored.

(Needless to say, a Rush Limbaugh listener in Alabama can reasonably skip going to the polls as well, and I don't mind if he does.)


I've been considering reasons why people would want to vote, and while the original Freakonomics piece does a good job it only considers one possible outcome of voting - a candidate winning or losing the election. But that's certainly not the only outcome of voting, there's also the impact it has on voter turnout, margin of victory and demographic voting info. All of those things are statistics that politicians in Washington (and in state capitols) pay attention to, and in all cases voting would seem to provide incentives for politicians to act better.

High turnout means that whoever wins has the "mandate" of the people, and therefore gives incentives to work with them. Low turnout gives more power to the "base" of the party, which gives politicians incentives to pander to their base and not compromise with the other party. A larger margin of victory has a similar effect for the party you're voting for, and increasing the representation of your demographic in voting totals means that demographic will get more attention from politicians.

Now, the impact any one vote has on these totals or ratios isn't big, but it certainly isn't zero. The winner of an election is a binary outcome, while these other outcomes are linear. The impact of your voting most likely will have 0 outcome on the winner of the election, but it will definitely have a small, but non-zero, impact on other linear factors.

The question then becomes not "is the effort of voting worth the likely 0 impact I'll have", and instead is "is the effort of voting worth the small impact I'll have?" Depending on how much effort it takes to vote that answer may change for different people, but it's definitely a much more interesting and useful way to frame the question.



" It’s not that your vote categorically doesn’t count — it’s that one person’s vote has such a miniscule chance of being decisive, that it is actually irrational to take the day off of work, drive to the polls, wait in line and finally vote.

Your vote has almost no chance of making a real difference in who wins or loses."

"One rain drop does not make a flood but millions do..."

Been voting alternative political party (also called third parties) since 1988 just to give my "none of the above vote".

If more people did this, the two main parties and info-tainment media would be stopped cold...

You know there ARE are more than two political parties, RIGHT?

Enter your name...

> You know there ARE are more than two political parties, RIGHT?

Sure, but in the US, there are only two "main parties".

As for taking the day off work, maybe it should be a holiday (or half-holiday).


Ahhh - the blissful ignorance and arrogance of youth....

I did not read the entire article yet (I will), yet what I did read was full of baseless platitudes and so-called common knowledge. Many of the arguments were more simplistic than the 10-minute lecture by my PoliSci 101 professor 30 years ago about voting (Why? Why not? Why vote for candidate A, B, or C?).

He'll learn, or he won't. If he chooses to take himself out of the political arena and let others chose for him, that is his choice. I just hope an article of blog post the kid writes in a few years doesn't include a rant about whoever is elected. And if he does write that blog entry, I hope I can be the first to tell him to "STFU - you made your choice by not choosing years ago... now be a grown up and live with the consequences of your choice."

Alleged Wisdom

A vote that is not completely random is a public good. Failing to vote is 'rational' in the same sense that free-riding on a public good, looting the commons, and cheating on the prisoner's dilemma is 'rational'. The whole point of social norms is to avoid the kinds of nash equilibria that make everyone worse off.

Telling people that they should not vote is like telling them that they should toss their trash out their car window rather than taking the trouble to put it in a trash can. After all, one more piece of trash will not mean anything...

Tom Stovall

1. Rolling the newspaper into a cylinder and assaulting someone in a hotel shower.

Seminymous Coward

Your article is getting hate mail because it's terrible, not because it's anti-voting. Most people aren't that into voting, after all.

After reading it, I see some issues that perhaps you overlooked. You declared yourself apolitical while writing a political opinion piece. You brutally straw-manned the pro-voting side. You think that elections results have no effect on the world except determining the winner and that all margins of victory are equivalent. You jumped from parents' and children's political views correlating to all party affiliations being arbitrary tribalism. You called different sets of political views "clubs." This sort of thing is sprinkled throughout your article, and it implies the worst kind of sloppy writing and reductionist thinking. I sincerely hope you get your head straight before you start drafting legal documents.

Even more glaringly, you flat-out called the 1960's Democratic party "pro-slavery" and implied the same of the post-swap Republican party. You trolled and got your reaction. Don't feign surprise and play the victim.



So what constitutes “improper” use?

Anything that gets you hate mail apparently.


The published article and the visceral reader response to it seems to have a root cause in the filter bubble. The filter bubble is the effect of Google, Facebook and other social media that filters the information one sees based on the information one has preferred to see in the past.

When modern day 'filter bubble' people attempt to communicate in a general unfiltered environment the flame wars emerge because people with opposing views have no regular contact with one another anymore and have become incapable of writing or understanding nuances. Everything has to be written in absolutes for anyone to pay attention.

The filter bubble is profitable for Google, Facebook, Amazon and Apple - they make their money by having their product (that would be you) reinforce their established behavior - the unintended consequence is that writers and readers alike can't imagine what others might be thinking when they say or write things.



Dead people vote . . . fight the Zombies!!!

Shane L

Oh I've been there! Years ago I became involved in a number of very active, quite aggressive online discussion forums. We had all kinds of members: Islamists, communists, anarchists, neo-conservatives, liberals, even a monarchist! Arguing and chatting with all those guys really opened my eyes to fascinating competing ideas about society, and helped teach me how to debate in a constructive fashion. In that medium we grew to know one another and if someone came out with a crazy-sounding idea we would just ask for evidence, and consider it, instead of dismissing it off-hand.

Back in the real world, meanwhile, most people had not been exposed to extreme or unusual ideas. If I suggested something mildly unusual - questioned the importance of historical colonisation to explain modern poverty, for example, or wondered aloud if laws prohibiting child labour are sensible in desperately poor countries - I was met with stunned outrage! Haha, they were just not used to dealing with ideas that were strange to them, or dealing with people who would pick and poke at their arguments.

One of my friends from those discussion forums said the same thing. Online in our debates he could pose tricky questions and challenge dogma. But offline, or in Facebook discussions with personal friends, he would find people hurt and outraged to have their opinions challenged. Freakonomics has discussed the idea of "repugnance" before and I think it's an important one. I found that, outside our busy discussion forums, many people believed that if they announced that they were offended by another's argument, they had won the debate: that a repugnant argument couldn't possibly have any merit.



Freakonomics can allege that an individual vote doesn't matter but that doesn't answer the question of whether or not an individual should or shouldn't vote.

A number of comments have already reached this critical conclusion; measuring whether or not a single vote will swing an election is not very relevant.

While you might make a strong argument that an individual should not vote but does your argument suggest that no one should vote? Or maybe you think that there is some level of voting, happy equilibrium that is perfect. That's hard to believe and I would love to see some evidence for that.

I don't think I will ever participate in an election that is determined by one vote. I do think it is a civic duty to vote but I understand why people don't vote and it doesn't bother me very much. On the other hand, it does bother me when people wear the guise of making a sensible argument that discourages voting.

It's great that Freakonomics thinks they are supporting some greater good, like a public defender, by making people consider arguments from a perspective they haven't seen before but excuse me for being a little skeptical that the real motive is simply to make more money by being controversial. Furthermore, how do you feel if your argument has actually decreased voter turn-out just like your flawed analysis of drunk walking has led to law firms getting off drunk drivers?



I find the impact of differences in voting laws to be very interesting from an economic point of view.
In the USA, where voting is optional, there is a strong alignment between people and their party of choice. Elections are commonly decided on how many of each group turn out to vote.
Here in Australia voting is mandatory - there are legal repercussions to not voting (a fine) and therefore turn-out is well over 90%. There are still many people who align tightly to a particular party, but the distinction is not nearly as sharp as the American Republican/Democrat chasm. Perhaps more importantly for the process - elections results are determined by voters who are *not* closely aligned since they are the only ones who's vote varies.